Crushed Optimists

We are twin brothers who grew up in Central Washington. This blog is devoted to the life of Seattle sports fans, as well as various other topics that we will espouse for your enjoyment. We could be called another OFFICIAL SEATTLE SEAHAWKS site, but we'll take our uneducated crack at the Mariners, Sonics, and Huskies as well. A Seattle Sports Blog? Must be the land... of crushed optimism!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Super Bowl Preview: Seattle Rushing Offense

Yesterday the Crushed Optimists staff began their appraisal of the various Super Bowl matchups, highlighting the battle that will occur when the Steelers run the ball. The general conclusion from the staff of the Steelers rushing attack ranged from "mediocre" to "good", and both agreed that the game will not be won or lost there.

Now, we all know that Jerome Bettis is playing in this game. I'll be upfront for a minute. I have liked Jerome Bettis for awhile. I love watching him bounce off tacklers, and I love the way he carries himself; with a great mix of professionalism and pure joy at playing the game. It appears that he is also a wonderful person and it is remarkable the way that his teammates have supported him and fought for him the past couple of years. His is a great story.



When you look at the actual GAME, of which there will be one played on Sunday (amazing how easy it is to forget that while reading the 100th article about Bettis, or Hasselbeck becoming the next Favre, or Big Ben becoming the next Marino, or how great the Steelers fans are, or how stupid Texas A&M is), Bettis is just above a non-factor. He is a situational back that will get the ball 10-15 times, gain perhaps 30-40 yards, and MAYBE score a touchdown. That's the optimistic view of Bettis' impact on the game. (ed: I heard Dhani Jones on the radio this morning pick the Steelers because he figured there was no way Bettis was going to allow anyone to beat him in his hometown. I wanted to yell back at Mr. Jones that Bettis wasn't a major factor in this game anyways. That logic might fly if Big Ben was from Detroit, or Joey Porter was from Detroit, because they will be huge cogs in however the Steelers do come Sunday. But not Bettis. Not on the field at least.)

Gavin: I'm at the point of completely disregarding most anything I see with the name "Bettis" in the title. I'd rather read an article about Paris Hilton.

The rushing attack that matters to the outcome of this game much, much more comes when the Seattle Seahawks have the ball. It comes from MVP of the NFL Shaun Alexander and the best offensive line in the NFL. Again, this part might not decide the game, but the outcome of this battle will do FAR MORE towards deciding the game then the Steelers rushing attack; whether the Seahawks win this battle or the Steelers do (and both are definite possibilities). Let's look closer at the participants in this side of the duel.

First, here are some general stats for what was an absolutely dominant performance by the rushing offense this season. The Hawks rushed the ball 519 times during the regular season to 474 times passing the ball, strengthening the conclusion that Holmgren was EXTREMELY balanced in his play-calling this season. This is a multi-faceted offense, folks. You stop one, you have to stop the other. During those 519 rushing plays, the Seahawks got 2457 rushing yards for an outstanding 4.7 YPC average. Again, Pittsburgh's YPC average was 4.0, almost a yard difference. That adds up, people. For YPC, Seattle is tied for 2nd; only Atlanta's 4.8 is better. Pittsburgh is tied for 12th with New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and St. Louis. This was an elite rushing offense this year, earning Alexander the MVP. And, yes, I know that at least 20% of the award should probably go to Walter, Hutch, and the rest, but if you watched Shaun last Sunday, you saw that he's better than your av-e-rage running back (tried for the Yogi the Bear reference there).

Gavin: Leave the cartoon references to me, loser.

Let's head back to Football Outsiders and check out how the Hawks managed against the better defensive lines in the NFL. Check the top 10 and you find Carolina, Arizona, and the NY Giants (we'll throw in Washington as well, who was number 11).

Our stats against those opponents, including both Washington and Arizona games:
Arizona: 37 att, 163 yds, 4.4 YPC
at Washington: 23 att, 119 yds, 5.2 YPC
at Arizona: 33 att, 208 yds, 6.3 YPC
NY Giants: 34 att, 127 yds, 3.7 YPC
Washington: 33 att, 119 yds, 3.6 YPC
Carolina: 51 att (WOW!), 190 yds, 3.7 YPC
Total: 211 att, 926 yds, 4.39 YPC

Not. Too. Shabby.

We're talking teams that, coming into the game, were focusing their entire defenses on Shaun and the rushing attack and we handled that just fine. That's the happy totals, but what of the single performers? Let's look first at Shaun and then at our offensive line:

Shaun Alexander: 370 att, 1880 yds, 5.1 YPC, 27 TDs
Those are absolutely phenomenal numbers, people. That's all-world stuff. This guy deserved the MVP for putting up one of the single greatest seasons by a running back in NFL history, including, of course, breaking the single season record for touchdowns. Shaun even improved his pass-blocking this year (still not great), and became a truly complete back. The "soft" tag? Until last week, Shaun had converted EVERY SINGLE 3rd and 1 opportunity handed him this season. EVERY SINGLE ONE!! That's remarkable; and it belies the ease with which he found holes with his offensive line. Again, check out some of his numbers on Football Outsiders. First, a brief explanation of the stats:

DPAR means a running back with more total value over a replacement player. DVOA means a running back with more value per play over a replacement player.

Alexander: 57.8% DPAR (ranked 2nd behind Larry Johnson), 20.7% DVOA (ranked 4th). His success rate on running plays was measured at 54% (against, 4th). Again, these stats classify Alexander as a great back who picks up the tough yards and succeeds more than most running backs in the NFL.

Compare to, oh, Willie Parker: 14.0% DPAR (ranked 16th), -1.1% DVOA (ranked 24th), and a success rate of 48% (ranked 12th).

Who would you rather have running the football in this game, huh?

Gavin: I'd like to take a little more in depth look at Shaun and what he did this year. As we saw with Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker, sometimes who you play or one great game affects your statistics to the point they can lie. For example, we saw that Jerome Bettis had one great game and a season of awfulness (but he's from Detriot, so apparently he is has been christened by the Holy Mother) and that Willie Parker was good against teams who couldn't stop anyone. How consistent was Shaun? Against teams ranked in the top half of the league in rushing defense, he went for 5.2, 6.4, 4.9, 2.9, 7.5, 3.5, and 6.6 yards per game. He busted a 20+ yarder in 6 of those 7 games. That's flat out amazing. Again, there is one outlier, the 2.9 average in that Dallas game. We remember what happened that game. The wide receiver injuries caught up with us, it was one week after the Ken Hamlin incident, and Dallas took advantage of our distractions. The wide receiver depth played quite a large part in that game as well. Those ypc numbers were even better than what Colin saw looking at the entire team. Shaun and this offensive line were able to dominate every time they were challenged up front except in the Dallas game. That's why those numbers from the Football Outsider are so much larger. We are that much better a rushing team than Pittsburgh. As Colin mentioned, the ability to succeed on third-and-one is the difference between an 80 yard touchdown drive and a 40 yard "feel good" drive. Shaun is now automatic at that, and his ability to gain that yard has allowed Holmgren to call some play-action to Jerramy Stevens for big plays.

Now, as for the offensive line, they were dominant this year. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Dominant.

Football Outsiders, though, only has us ranked 6th, which seems low, but we did have the 2nd highest amount of 10+ yards (25% of our running plays), and had the highest rated power success (the 3rd and 1 or goal line pushes) at 81%. That's immense.

Gavin: I had to admit I was really curious why we were at #6. Apparently we were a bit of an all or nothing running attack. We ranked #25 at being stuffed at the line on first down. I would put part of that on Shaun and how he has this tendency to improvise every now and then. It does put the importance on the passing game to open up the running game. Really interesting and not great stat. Pitt (by the way) is 9th. I suppose that means this one particular statistic isn't an overall indicator of success. I've always seen us as a better first down passing team anyways through play action. At the end of the day though, when this offensive line is called on to get a yard, they always get it.

These are guys who get a push going on either side of the line. Obviously Walter and Hutch are beasts, but this has been Tobeck's best season, Gray's best season, and Sean Locklear even came to the party and has taken on with success some of the best pass blockers in the NFL. I don't even know what to write about them. They are JUST THAT GOOD. Now, one thing I do worry about them is the tendency to pick up a silly holding call once or twice a game that stalls a drive in its tracks. That can't happen, especially early in the game. Seahawk stalled drives tick me off.

Gavin: No holding calls, Tobeck. Please, for the love...

Enough about the Seattle rushing offense. They're great. Didn't really need a bunch of stats to tell us that, right? How good is the Steelers rushing defense?

Answer: Pretty doggone good, which isn't awesome. They are ranked 2nd as a team against the run on Outsiders, and for good reason. Casey Hampton is a beast in the middle, and the linebackers (as well as Polamalu) are fast and plug holes quickly. They allowed a paltry 3.4 YPC average, which is phenomenal, and basically turned many an offense into a one dimensional team, including Indy and Denver in the past two weeks. Edge rushed 13 times for 56 yds (not good), and Anderson/Bell combined for 14 att for 67 yds. Combined that is 27 att, 123 yds, and a healthier 4.56 YPC. However, that number is slightly misleading because both teams ditched the run early on and focused completely on the pass because Pittsburgh was so far ahead, so the few times they did run later on in the game was against dime and nickel coverage, an easier task to rush the football. Suffice it to say that this defense has been dominant, and their strength is against the run.

Gavin: Good analysis on the rushing yards the past few games. I agree with you. They did a fantastic job shutting down the point of attack, generally because Troy Polamalu has made a pact with the devil giving him the ability to be in eight places at once. While the Steelers were ranked #2 in team rushing defense, the defensive line drops to #4. What does that mean? Not too sure. However, I am most interested in two phases. 1. How good are they at stuffing the run (no gain)? 2. How good are they at avoiding the big play (those 20+ yarders Shaun always gets)? Well, to answer #1, the Steelers ranked #6 in the league with stuffing 28% of either 1st down runs or less than a quarter of yards needed on 2nd or 3rd down. That's pretty doggone good (the Hawks are #8). Now, on third or fourth down on short yardage, the Steelers allow a 56% success rate, which is worse than your "weak" Seahawks. We can deal with that. To answer #2 we get some more good news. The Steelers gave up runs of 10+ yards 20% of the time, ranking 26th in the league. That means if you guess right on their blitz package (see Colin's keys below), you can bust it. Shaun and this offensive line have been consistently good at getting one-two of those a game this year. We will need them to do it again.

The real question is whether this huge rushing defense dominance in the postseason, against, remember, three party doggone good rushing teams (Cincy, Indy, and Denver), means that Seattle's rushing game will suffer, and that's a real question.

I believe we can rest easy knowing that Mike Holmgren is not going to throw away the running game anytime soon. He has been too consistent too long for that. The only problem, obviously, would occur if we got down by double-digits early, but even then I believe that Holmgren wouldn't panic and throw away the running game. He knows how important balance is to this offense. If you see Shaun carrying the ball less than 20-25 times this ballgame, then the Seahawks have lost by 20 and it was a rout. If Shaun carries the ball at least 20 times, then the game was reasonably close, and if he carries the ball 30-35 times, it most likely means we won and were able to run down the clock in the closing minutes.

Gavin: Again, I agree. Holmgren abandoned the running game a couple of times early in the year and learned from it. Shaun will get his touches. Even if Holmgren doesn't call it, Hasselbeck will.

There are a few main matchups to worry about here:
1. Tobeck vs. Hampton: Hampton is immense, and Tobeck might struggle to get Hampton off the line. If Gray has to help, the right side of the line might struggle to open holes for Shaun.

2. Jones vs. Porter: Erase Porter, for the most part, from the running attack if Jones goes at him. Jones has the athleticism to take even an All-Pro linebacker off his game.

3. Polamalu vs. Hasselbeck: Hasselbeck? Absolutely. Part of the genius of our rushing attack lies in Matt's ability to audible to the run against the blitz, causing huge holes for Alexander. If Matt can discern what Troy is doing, that will enable him to make the correct reads and perhaps fluster Polamalu into taking fewer chances.

The bottom line? Do not expect a dominant performance by the Seahawks rushing attack, but do expect a balanced offense, and do NOT be surprised to see Alexander finish the game with at least 20 carries, 120 yards, and 2 touchdowns. Those numbers just happen....

Gavin: Dominant is a strong word. I believe from looking at these stats that the Steelers will be unable to completely take our running game away. Shaun should average 4.2, 4.3 ypc and have at least one run over 20 yards. If he hits that, by the way, we probably win this game.

Tomorrow: The Pittsburgh passing offense!

posted by colin_hesse @ 10:49 AM  0 comments


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